Posted by Tom Gable
The public relations profession faces many challenges in these hardscrabble times. Clients are holding tight, cutting their public relations budgets or simply saying goodbye. Competitors swoop in, looking for hints of weakness in a client-agency relationship. Business consulting, advertising and marketing firms aren’t far behind, promoting their tool kits as a means of not only surviving but growing in touch economic times. What steps can agencies take to ensure that their clients are incredibly pleased with the work being done, the results generated on their behalf and the agency relationship?
Based on lessons learned from working through three previous recessions (some better than others!), I’ve come to realize that success in client service and retention requires a manic sense of urgency to deliver short-term results combined with a disciplined approach to creativity and long-range planning. Smart agencies provide clients with ideas and strategic plans that will be generating results six, nine and twelve months into the future. The best way to get the agency or in-house team pointed in the right direction and taking action: create a system and process to drive results.
Developing Your System
At Gable PR, we experimented with different approaches in the 1992 recession. The goal was to have clients envision gaining market share and mind share from their competitors by committing to pro-active public relations. Statistics from several sources provided validation; the companies that continued marketing in troubled times grew faster than those who didn’t. We began calling our system “horizon management” and worked to get the client on board for sailing together toward new and beneficial destinations.
As recently presented during a recent PRSA Webinar and based on longer lessons found in The PR Client Service Manual, pro-active systems work best with an interactive team process; the more brainpower the better. One approach is to hold regular meetings every Monday to update on all client activities. For long-term impact, use the meeting to brainstorm new ideas for each client on a rotating basis. Chose one client or two as the subjects for the next meeting. Have the team leader or account manager review background information in advance of the session, including client calendars, milestones, known events and activities, conference schedules, editorial calendars and focus editions.
The Planning Spreadsheet
Then, to make it easy for everyone to visualize the flow of activities and critical deadlines, plot your plan on a project management program or Excel spreadsheet. List activities in the first column, months in the subsequent columns over the next year or two and put in check marks to note when activities or events are expected to take place. A rough sample can be found here on the Gable PR Web site.
Then, during the creative session, analyze each opportunity and see what result might be generated to advance the client’s business, marketing or capital plans, or all of the above. Envision media relations, community relations, investor relations, social media activities, trade relations and public affairs opportunities unfolding across time.
Agency teams can brainstorm on the tactical approaches within each area, set priorities and also get creative in looking at what we call “the flip side” — what’s there and, more importantly, what’s not there? The initial road map gives the agency a simple planning document to track, and makes it easy to take detours and add new side trips while still keeping the original destinations in mind as the program unfolds.
From Brainstorm to Masterful, Strategic PR Plan
With team brainpower, the agency has now created a master plan for the year, with a series of new ideas it can present to the client, implement and keep updating with creative sessions that are adjusted to point to new horizons. Clients get excited. They see the agency as creative, intuitive, pro-active and worth keeping! New ideas can also drive new budgets.
The flip side is sitting back and bemoaning the lower budget and managing for time, not results. This inevitably ends up with the client calling to ask one of the worst questions on earth for an agency: “What have you done for me lately?”
Every agency’s mission, as well of those on internal PR staffs on the client side, should be ensure you do great work both lately and for the long-term. Techies call this parallel processing. Handle the daily tasks with alacrity and skill while working on your horizon program that generates results that go beyond the ordinary and expected for every client. The approach creates value and ROI for the client and relationships that endure to perpetuity (well, maybe not quite that long, but potentially for years and even decades).